Friday, December 31, 2010


One more trip down Memory Lane. While I was going through some of the stuff my mother had in storage, I came across a bunch of old Tarzan paperbacks that once belonged to my father. He left them behind after the divorce and they stayed in a closet for years afterward. Now, while my mother had many virtues as a parent, making sure her kids’ time was occupied was not one of them so consequently as a boy I often found myself bored out of my skull. And on one of those occasions I decided to take a crack at some of those Tarzan books. I can’t remember what piqued my interest about them; probably the great Frazetta covers on some of them (see above, though Frazetta later said he wasn’t even trying his best with those paintings because the publisher was so cheap and wouldn’t give him back his artwork!).

I started with the very first one: Tarzan of the Apes. Unfortunately I never got to finish it because I made the mistake of bringing it to school with me and somebody ripped it off. (Who the hell steals a Tarzan paperbook? They’re cheap. You can get it for free at the library. And no junior high school punk thief reads books anyway.) So I never finished that one. Luckily I already had a comic book adaption so I knew how it ended, and I was smart enough to never again bring one of my own books to school. Lesson learned. I read the second book in the series, The Return of Tarzan, cover to cover. And I loved it. And I loved the next one, and the next one, and the one after that (Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, probably my favorite). Let’s face it, Tarzan’s a wish-fulfillment character right in the wheelhouse of a 12 or 13-year-old boy, something I happened to be at the time. And say what you will about Edgar Rice Burroughs as a writer but those books move (no less a writer than Gore Vidal said Burroughs possessed a rare gift: he could “describe action vividly”). The books are never boring. Well, they aren’t unless you maybe try to read them all in a short period of time. I made it through the first 13 but put down number 14 halfway through and never picked it or any subsequent Tarzan book back up again. The repetition must have gotten to me. But I’ve never lost my affection for the character.

For most people Tarzan’s not a character from a book though. He’s a character from movies and TV. The 1932 movie with Johnny Weismuller was such a hit that it kicked off a movie series lasting over 30 years. The series kept on going well past the time Weismuller got too old to play Tarzan anymore. No problem. They’d just get a new actor to play Tarzan. And I saw a bunch of these movies. Not at a movie theater though. On TV. In the pre-cable era old movies constituted the programming lifeblood of countless local TV stations and where I grew up one station featured a little show on the weekend called “Tarzan Theatre”, which was nothing but the opportunity to show a cheap old Tarzan movie every Saturday. (This clip isn’t of “my” Tarzan Theatre but it's close enough).

At the time of my first exposure to the Tarzan movies I hadn’t yet cracked open the books but my know-it-all father had and he was kind enough to explain to me how the movie Tarzan was actually a much-bastardized version of Burrough’s fictional creation. The book Tarzan was not only clever and resourceful, he was the child of an English lord, the master of several languages including English, and was perfectly at home in either civilized London or primeval Africa. The movie Tarzan on the other hand was a simple but good-hearted man-child who couldn’t speak in complete sentences or comprehend modern civilization (though like his literary counterpart he would deal out some serious ass-kicking when necessary). And while the first couple of Weismuller Tarzan movies were well-done big-budget MGM affairs the later ones, with or without Weismuller, just kept getting worse. Stupid plots. Bad acting.  The same stock footage used over and over again. Soundstages instead of location shooting. Even going to color didn’t improve things much. Until 1959.

After Weismuller retired the Tarzan producers replaced him with Lex Barker (for 6 films), and then Gordon Scott (nee Werschkul). But the budgets remained low and Tarzan remained the same monosyllabic character regardless of which actor donned the loincloth. That all changed with Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. A new producer, Sy Weintraub, took over the series and changed things for the better. Realistic dangers. Sensible plots. Location shooting.  And best of all, Tarzan acted and spoke like a normal intelligent human being. With a real script for once Gordon Scott proved to be a terrific Tarzan in his fifth go-round as the character and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure lives up to its title. The follow-up, Tarzan the Magnificent was equally good. I loved those two films. The highwater mark didn’t last though. Scott didn’t want to get typecast at Tarzan so he set off for Italy to make a bunch of movies there during the height of the “sword and sandal” craze. After that he left show business altogether and kind of disappeared.

Finding that box with my Dad’s old Tarzan books obviously triggered a lot of memories. It also got me wondering about what ever happened to Gordon Scott, my favorite Tarzan. Luckily the internet allows such questions to be easily answered. Turns out that that Scott’s days as a celluloid hero made him a lot of fans and maybe the biggest was a guy named Roger Thomas, all of 14-years-old when Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure came out. As an older man he made it his mission to track down and meet his boyhood hero. After years of trying he finally succeeded and in 2001 he arranged for Scott to visit him in Baltimore. Scott arrived and that “visit” ended up lasting for six years. Scott just basically moved in with the Thomases. Scott was a kind of a mysterious character, a bit of a recluse really, but Thomas loved having his hero around.  Can you imagine that happening to you? Your favorite childhood movie star coming to live with you years later? Becoming your close friend and eating dinner with you every night?  Unfortunately, Scott developed some serious health problems, had to go into a nursing home, and died in 2007. But this article about the relationship between Scott and his biggest fan is really touching.

As for Tarzan, without Scott the series swung on with Jock Mahoney for two films but at 42 he was already a bit long in the tooth for the part. So Weintraub had to pick a new one from over 300 applicants (including Frank Gifford!) and  here I can finally connect up this post to the National Football League because the man selected to play the next Tarzan was an active professional football player, Mike Henry. From the NFL gridiron to the African Jungle. A ninth-round pick from USC, Henry played linebacker for the Steelers from 1959 to 1962 and for the Rams from 1963 to 1965. (9 career INT’s and 6 career fumble recoveries). His 1962 Post cereal football card says “During the off season, Henry works as an extra in several movie and television studios in Hollywood.” But when Hollywood opportunity struck Henry chose movie stardom over NFL obscurity, retiring from the game in order to play the Lord of the Jungle. But Henry’s Tarzan wasn’t really much of a jungle dweller at all. The moviemakers refashioned the character as a globe-trotting hairy-chested James Bond type. Crazy huh?

Henry did three Tarzan films and there the series died. Luckily Henry didn’t die along with it. During the filming of Henry's second Tarzan movie Cheetah, played by Dinky the Chimp, used his fangs to rip open Henry’s jaw. Henry became delirious with jungle fever for several days but survived unlike Dinky the troublemaking chimp who was euthanized for his sins. Henry also suffered several injuries during filming and came down with dysentery, ear infections, and an infected liver as well (Plus a typhoon destroyed the set of his third Tarzan movie and brought with it a typhoid epidemic; bad juju). After making that third movie Henry was sick of the whole thing, called it a day and hung up the loincloth even though he had been all set to star in the TV series to immediately follow that third film. The part instead went to Ron Ely (who was good). The TV show lasted two years and several theatrical movies were cobbled together from some of the episodes but essentially the Tarzan movie series came to an end when Henry left.

A decade later Tarzan finally returned to the screen in two very different films: Greystoke (a fine period piece) and Tarzan the Ape Man (to this day the worst movie I have ever seen in a theatre). Then two more movies in the late 90’s: Disney’s Tarzan (not a bad cartoon) and Tarzan and the Lost City (unseen by me but I heard it sucked). Since then nothing. But in recent years we’ve seen Zorro and Sherlock Holmes refashioned into big-budget special effects blockbusters so I don’t see why the same can’t be done for Tarzan. But I have a feeling that when that future Tarzan movie appears it's not going to bear a whole lot of similarity to the original Tarzan books I read all those years ago.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

30 Years Ago This Month

In my previous post I referred to the one football game I ever attended with my mother. It turned out to be one hell of a game, one of the most exciting I’ve ever seen. The Dolphins shut down the league’s top-scoring offense for three quarters, fell behind in the fourth quarter, rallied for a late game-tying TD, and then, facing certain defeat, blocked a field goal to send the game into overtime. Where they won. Awesome. The greatest NFL game I’d ever been to up to that time. And did I mention this was a Monday Night game? The crowd was absolutely electric that night and when that winning field goal went through the uprights the Orange Bowl was shaking. Literally. What a great game and a great night. But no one was talking about it the next day. Nobody. I found out the next morning before school that while I was yelling and high-fiving and cheering on the Fins to victory, a lunatic had gunned down my hero.

Right before the game’s most dramatic moment, the New England Patriots’ attempt at a walk-off game winning field goal, Howard Cosell informed the audience of the murder of John Lennon. But the 80,000 of us actually at the game didn’t have a clue. We were screaming our guts out and rocking the stadium while everyone watching on TV suddenly could care less about the blocked field goal try.

For days afterward the news was filled with images of people deeply affected by Lennon’s death. People openly weeping about someone they’d never met. I didn’t have that reaction. Like I said, Lennon was my hero but I didn’t cry for him. I just felt weird. More than anything I was confused. I didn’t really know how to react. I didn’t know him and being a teenager, an introverted one at that, I wasn’t really given to openly expressing my feelings. But I knew I’d lost something.

When it comes to music I’ve always somehow found myself behind the times. While the rest of my peer group was digging disco and corporate rock and “Bruce, Billy and Bob” (as one of my friends put it), I was at home listening to my mother’s old Beatles records. My mother was a bit of a hippie and she had pretty good taste in music, assembling a nice collection of what we now like to call Classic Rock. And years after the group called it a day I played those Beatles albums over and over and over again. Their music meant everything to me. They were the Alpha and Omega of rock. My mother primarily owned the later period stuff, so when I wore those grooves out I got myself all their other records too. And I loved them all. I loved them so much that the music wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to learn about the band too. I wanted to know the legend. Who were these guys and what made them so great? I needed to know. So I picked up a little book called The Beatles Forever and I read it so many times that it eventually fell apart. I’ve read plenty of other books about the Beatles but this one’s still the best as far as I’m concerned. You get the basic history, some fine writing about the music, especially the solo careers, but the author, Nicholas Schaffner, really gets across just how important the Beatles were to the generation that grew up with them. And those were the people shedding tears in the wake of Lennon’s death.

Back in 1987 I saw a show marking the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper and the so-called Summer of Love and at the end each of the surviving Beatles was asked if they believed it was true that “All You Need Is Love”. George Harrison said he did. I can’t remember exactly what Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr said but in the Beatles Anthology McCartney said he did believe that was the essential message of the Beatles. Maybe that’s too simplistic a summary of the entire Beatles catalog but let’s stipulate that McCartney’s right, after all, the man wrote a lot of love songs and he’s surely more qualified than anyone else to say what the Beatles were all about. After all, the Beatle became the most loved band of all time for a reason, or reasons. And surely one of those reasons was their message. Another reason has to be the Fab Four (seemingly) lived their own message, being so close to one another and so appreciative of their fans devotion (at least in appearance). The Beatles Forever lets you see all this from the viewpoint of a fan who felt this connection to the band. And the connection didn’t stop with the band as a group. The Beatles were so famous that each member of the band had a public persona, so every fan had a favorite Beatle. And like so many mine was John Lennon.

Because the Beatles had called it a day by the time I started listening to their music, I learned about them from Schaffner’s book and subsequently from various interviews, mainly Lennon’s famous Playboy interview published shortly before his death. The biting wit, the uncompromising truth-telling (as he saw it), the crazy political stunts (trying to help stop a war). And his songs seemed to come from a more personal place than McCartney’s. He was real. All this strongly appealed to my teenage self. Here was somebody I wished I could be like. Now even then I knew Lennon was hardly, as McCartney put it later, the idealized “Martin Luther Lennon” figure he became after his I murder. He was too complicated and damaged an individual for that. But that didn’t matter. I loved his music and I loved what he had to say on matters both political and personal. I certainly wasn’t alone. And then some crazy person with a gun shot him to death for absolutely no reason. All these years later it’s still horrible to think about.

The day after the game I expected to be able to regale my friends with stories about the game. But that never happened. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Certainly not me, and for the last 30 years I’ve never thought about that Monday Night game without thinking about the death of John Lennon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I profusely apologize to my few readers out there for the lack of posts these past couple of months. While I’ve never been the most prolific blogger, a number of recent events in my life left me with no desire to write even a single word. And the very worst of these events was the sudden death of my mother. I definitely won’t post some maudlin reminiscence of her here or, worse, an explication of our complicated relationship.

No, this is a football blog so indulge me as I remember my mom in relation to football. Basically, she had no understanding of the game whatsoever. None. Simply put, my mom embodied the cliché of the woman who just doesn’t get football at all. She loved the excitement though; she really seemed to be having a good time at the one game I remember us attending. And she certainly enjoyed being around when her boys were home watching a game together and cheering on the Fins. But she couldn’t really follow a game so her questions about, oh, anything having to do with the game (“Are the Dolphins playing today?” “No mom, it’s Saturday) were always good for some laughs. And the introduction of fantasy football just ratcheted up the unintentional comedy. “The Dolphins won. Does that help your team?” “No mom. As nice as that result was we only care about stats in fantasy football.” She never could grasp that. She didn’t comprehend NFL blackout rules either. On those rare occasions the Dolphins didn’t sell out my mother was invariably puzzled to find out I got to watch the Miami game that she, a South Florida resident, had to miss. Of course when the game was televised she never knew what channel it was on anyway and, since she also didn’t quite get the concept of local television markets, she didn’t understand why I couldn’t give her an answer.

We never once had a normal football-related conversation. She didn’t know any of the players outside of Dan Marino. She didn’t know strategy. She didn’t know the rules. But whenever she did ask me something about football there was a real good chance the question was going to put a smile on my face.

Thanks for the laughs mom.